Babergh leader claims authority is in a strong position as he discusses local issues
With a consultation ongoing on the Joint Local Plan, which aims to shape Babergh and Mid Suffolk over the next 20 years, attention has sharpened on the districts’ current trajectory, and where they are headed.
And off the back of this year’s local elections, which saw Babergh District Council form a coalition administration after the ruling Conservatives lost their overall majority, council leader John Ward acknowledged the authority has had its detractors in recent years.
But despite taking this hit at the ballot box, he claimed the authority is in a strong position, and he remains optimistic for the future.
“Babergh has always been no overall control,” Cllr Ward said. “2015 was a bit of an anomaly. The elections this year were a reflection of politics nationally.
“But it has enabled me to put together a coalition that’s drawing from the strengths across the chamber. I’ve got a very good cabinet – better than I had before.
“There has been a lot of complaint about some things we have done, but I believe Babergh and Mid Suffolk are innovative councils, and we are, together, in a strong position.”
One of the main talking points in the Local Plan, which is intended to be submitted to the planning inspector for ratification in the new year, is the requirement to build 7,560 new homes in Babergh by 2036.
In response to worries about the burden of new homes on local infrastructure, but Cllr Ward said the council will work with Neighbourhood Plans to allocate specific sites for development, to give certainty for where houses can and cannot be built.
“We don’t want to see speculative development,” he said. “It’s not good for our communities.
“We want to be in control of planning policy. We have to deliver targets, but we haven’t set extremely high targets, and we can meet them.
“We will make sure we have the right number of affordable housing for those that need it. The fact is, our house price to owners ratio is far too high in the district. We want people to own their own homes.
“Some communities should take extra housing. It brings new youth and vitality to these communities, and it allows existing businesses an extra 20 or 30 houses that may be the difference between them staying open or closing.
The Local Plan also sets out priorities for business, retail and industry – an area that has seen some upheaval in the district.
Uncertainty has continued to grow around the futures of Delphi Diesel Systems in Sudbury and Philips Avent in Glemsford, two industrial sites set to shut next year, affecting hundreds of jobs.
Cllr Ward stated he wants to see both sites retained for industrial use, with the Delphi site earmarked as protected strategic employment land in the Local Plan.
He also revealed the council hopes to broker communications with Charterhouse, the intended buyer, and an electric car manufacturer that previously bid for the site, to see if there are any opportunities.
“That is still on the table,” he said. It’s a long shot, but we are still trying to work with them.
“Our focus is on retaining it largely or exclusively for employment in one form or another. Given the Chilton Woods land available, we don’t need another major residential site in Sudbury.
“I will say that those who have left Delphi have found it relatively easy to get employment elsewhere. What businesses in Sudbury and Hadleigh are telling us is there is a shortage of skilled labour in both towns.”
Meanwhile, the rise of online shopping has drawn concerns about the impacts on high street and independent businesses.
The Borehamgate Centre in Sudbury has been highlighted as an area on the decline, with a growing number of vacant units.
Cllr Ward accepted that Borehamgate “needs to have a facelift”, adding that the council is working to progress the proposed regeneration of the Hamilton Road area, which he says has had interest from a number of parties.
“It is Babergh’s desire for the key part for that to be a cinema,” he said. “We really do want to bring a cinema to Sudbury.
“We do have this pressure on high-street retail, unfortunately. It’s the same everywhere, which is why we need to start thinking about innovative ways of encouraging other types of businesses to come in.
“We do have discretion about providing a certain amount of relief, but until the government comes up with a root-and-branch rethink of the whole business rates scheme, we are limited with what we can do.”
Having been Babergh leader since the start of 2018, Cllr Ward added that he felt very fortunate to be in the role, and that the district is an exciting place to be.
“I am optimistic about the future,” he concluded. “I do believe Babergh is in a strong position to meet the challenges of the future, because we’ve had to take some tough decisions.
“It’s only by recognising you’ve got to do that, that you will be able to meet those challenges.”